Turkish court rules to keep Zaman columnist Ali Ünal in jail despite serious health problems

Former Zaman columnist Ali Ünal

A high criminal court in the western Turkish province of Uşak has refused to release Ali Ünal, a theologian and former columnist for the now-closed Zaman daily, despite serious health problems he is suffering.

The fifth hearing in Ali Ünal’s trial was held at the Uşak 2nd High Criminal Court on Wednesday. Ünal, who has been behind bars for about 26 months and incarcerated in a high-security prison in İzmir province, is accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” “establishing and managing an armed terrorist organization” and “membership in a terrorist organization” due to his links to the Gülen movement. Ünal faces two consecutive life sentences in addition to a 29-and-a-half-year jail sentence.

It was reported by online news website TR724 that both the chief judge and the prosecutor have been changed in the 2nd High Criminal Court of Uşak where Ünal is being tried. However, the new prosecutor also demanded Ünal be sentenced to aggravated life, repeating the rationale on the merits presented by the previous prosecutor.

During his testimony in court, Ünal demanded additional time for his defense, saying that he had been unable to prepare his defense due to serious health problems. “I went to the hospital, a blood test was done. My blood values have been determined to be unbalanced. I tried to rest in my cell since the doctors suggested I rest. There are imbalances in my blood pressure and blood sugar, and they can suddenly make my life very difficult.”

Ünal’s lawyer Ayşe Süeda Ünal also said during the hearing: “The prosecution prepared this indictment in 18 months. We are asked to prepare a defense in 1,5 months. This situation is against the principle of equality before the court.”

Stating that her client has been in custody for 26 months, Ünal said: “However, no specific assessment has been made yet in accordance with Article 102 of the Code of Criminal Procedure [CMK], which regulates the period of detention. Ali Ünal has serious health problems. He was referred to the hospital with the suspicion of having cancer, and the results of tests that came this morning indicate that his blood values are unbalanced. With all of this in mind, we demand that additional time to be given for his defense.”

The court ruled for additional time for Ünal and his lawyer to prepare his defense and warned that regardless of whether or not the defense is ready at the next hearing it will decide the case. The court ruled for a continuation of the imprisonment of Ünal and adjourned the trial until November 14.

Ünal was arrested in August 2016, and the first hearing of his trial was held on Jan. 4 during which Ünal delivered his defense and responded to accusations in the indictment relating to 17 of his columns in the Zaman daily. The journalist denied the charges and asked for his release. The court ruled to continue his incarceration and asked for an examination of his mobile phone.

The Zaman daily, which was affiliated with the Gülen movement, was first unlawfully seized by the Turkish government on March 4, 2016, and then closed down by government decree in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Dozens of Zaman journalists have been jailed on coup charges since the coup attempt.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 237 journalists and media workers were in jail as of September 2, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 169 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 145 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

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